Cheese & wine

Wine and cheese: for a simple party or special dinner

Sound Consumer | November 2007

by James Burke, Cheese Specialist, Fremont PCC Deli

(November 2007) — The holidays are before us. Parties, house guests, time with friends and family — what better reason to serve some fabulous cheese?

For the beginner, it can be intimidating. You enter a store and find yourself facing a case full of cheeses you’ve never seen, let alone tasted. (And you haven’t even wrestled with wine choices yet!) So many flavors, so many options. How to choose the right ones, especially when you don’t know your guests’ tastes?

Don’t stress. What feels intimidating at first actually is an excellent chance to experiment. It’s part of the fun for affineurs and novices alike. It’s also an opportunity to support a number of cheesemakers who are honing their skills — with excellent results — in the Pacific Northwest.

You can keep it simple: Tell your friends to bring “red” or “white” and lay out a platter of three or four crowd-pleasing favorites. A wedge of Gouda or Cheddar, a chunk of mild Blue, and a piece of soft-ripened Brie go a long way in getting a party started.

But should you care to aim higher with cheese and wine pairings, there are all sorts of astonishing combinations to delight your guests.

I recently hosted a wine and cheese tasting for 15 friends as part of an evening’s entertainment. The cheese was served between an infused-vodka tasting and a rich, buttery salmon dinner. I wanted to satisfy my friends’ appetites while still leaving them room for more. But I also wanted to introduce them to some cheeses and wines that might be new to them.

I started with Casteller Cava Brut, an affordable sparkling wine that never fails to prime the palette for more pleasures to come. It paired nicely with Bûche Maître Seguin, a soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese, and Istara, a semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese, both from France.

I followed this up with a full-bodied Gewürztraminer from Zind Humbrecht. This lovely wine from the renowned Alsace region of France was bolder than my friends expected, but they were pleasantly surprised to discover how much they enjoyed its well-rounded flavor.

I chose to serve this with Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an award-winning cheese from Wisconsin that rivals the best Gruyère and Comté — as well as Iberico, a hard-rind, sheep’s milk cheese from Spain that I topped with quince paste.

Next up: the Lodi Cabernet from 337 Wine Cellars of California. With its lush, bold and fruity flavors, this paired beautifully with Mimolette, a cow’s milk, hard-rind, dazzlingly orange cheese from France. It also nicely complemented Beecher’s Flagship cheddar from Seattle, as well as the French Blue d’Auvergne.

As dinner approached, I decided to save my last round of pairings for dessert: A smooth, nutty Alameda Cream Sherry from Hidalgo and a box of confections from Theo Chocolate in Fremont. With its gorgeous mahogany color and sensuous flavors, the Alameda was the perfect way to wind down an evening of food and friendship.

Keep in mind, some wine-cheese pairings just aren’t going to work — and why should they? A decent wine and a tasty cheese might stand just fine on their own, but together they might be completely incompatible. My advice: keep trying different combinations until you find the ones that approach the sublime.

While I tended to serve European cheeses at my pairing, the holidays present a great opportunity to showcase some excellent regional cheeses. Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend, for example, has been reaping high praise for its Cirrus Camembert and Trailhead Tomme. Seastack, a soft-ripened cheese rolled in ash and sea salt, has gone over so well at PCC wine tastings that customers are asking for it by name.

Beecher’s continues to impress with its commitment to traditional cheese-making. Its Flagship Reserve Cheddar took third place at the 2006 American Cheese Society competition. Other local options include the tasty, organic Samish Bay Gouda, golden in color and aged two months.

Golden Glen Creamery in Bow, Wash., makes medium cheddar that’s available plain or in several flavors, including chive and onion or sun-dried tomato and basil.

Whether you buy local or from abroad, you have plenty of choices this holiday season. New flavors, old favorites, even the occasional odd pairing — whatever you decide, your guests won’t leave disappointed.

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